FRISCO, Texas -- Twenty-seven years and counting.
The shadow of the 1990s Cowboys teams that won three Super Bowls in a four-year span just keeps growing, just as the burden does for current players to live up to those expectations -- whether they want to admit it or not.
The story has become the same. The chapters don’t change. The only differences in the sentences are the names: Tony Romo to Dak Prescott. DeMarco Murray to Ezekiel Elliott. Jason Witten to Dalton Schultz. Dez Bryant to CeeDee Lamb. DeMarcus Ware to Micah Parsons.
The constant, of course, is Jerry Jones, the owner and general manager.
But the Cowboys’ issue is not the construction of the roster as much as it is playing their best when it matters most, like in the divisional round of the playoffs against the 49ers.
“Just didn’t quite do enough,” said a disappointed coach Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy has coached two of the NFL’s most storied franchises, the Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. He won a Super Bowl in Green Bay and has a street near Lambeau Field named in his honor. The names that adorn the Packers’ Wall of Fame are as impressive as those in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is littered with players from both teams.
If there is anybody who knows the inherent pressure to live up to the past, it’s McCarthy. In 2010, his Packers did not feel a burden.
“I think it’s something you definitely should embrace,” McCarthy said late in the regular season. “I always looked at it as an energy source. The pride that’s in the bricks and everything around here, I mean that’s obviously built by the generations before us, and I think it’s something that we do a great job of honoring it, acknowledging it. But I’ve always looked at it as an energy source. Pride in where you work, who you work for, the success before you, so I don’t think it’s a negative at any means.”
The Cowboys went 15 years between Super Bowls from Super Bowl XII with Roger Staubach to Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXVII. The core of the 1990s Cowboys was part of the franchise’s rebirth after the end of the Tom Landry era and the 1-15 season in 1989.
“They’re further removed from our era than I was from Staubach’s era,” Aikman said. “And I don’t think we felt that burden of what the ’70s teams had accomplished. But we certainly were aware of it and respected it.”
Said Michael Irvin, “We didn’t get good all of a sudden. We were poor, and we got good gradually, and we made it great for a while. Because I suffered through the 3-13 and the 1-15 … . We never had any issue because we knew we all started at the 1-15 and the 3-13 together. We grew into that. So it wasn’t like somebody handed us. We grew that to what it was, and we remember that.
"I just, I don’t want them seeing this as a burden. I want them to understand the blessing that it is. Everybody wants it, watching. Show them. You cannot not show up wearing the [Cowboys] star because everybody is trying to make a season off of you.”
Irvin’s and Aikman’s Cowboys did not have to hear about a Super Bowl drought that is approaching three decades -- and it is probably a good thing there was not social media for those teams -- but these Cowboys do.
There has become a peculiar joy from segments of national media when the Cowboys lose; not that their opponents won a game.
“I’m here to do a job, so whether the fans like it, the fans don’t like it, Stephen A. [Smith] likes it, Stephen A. doesn’t like it, it really doesn’t matter,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “I still have to do the same job, regardless. So no matter if the lights are on, the lights are off, we have a job to do. So we don’t have to do any job that’s different than what they have to do in Cleveland. It’s cool -- more people watch us, the star -- but we still have the same job.”
The Cleveland Browns have never won a Super Bowl. Their last NFL championship came in 1964. But because of Jones’ omnipresence, Prescott’s status as the quarterback of America’s Team and his national ads, plus all that comes with the star on their helmet, the Cowboys face more pressure, internally or externally.
“It’s the greatest burden in the world. What do you mean is there a burden?” Irvin said. “It’s the greatest burden in the world because you know everybody is going to give an eyeball to you some kind of way. Now, what are you prepared to do with them eyeballs? Are you willing to let them see you sink, or are you willing to take that opportunity and maximize it?”
In 2022, the Cowboys went a step further than they did in 2021, making it past the wild-card round, even if it feels a little hollow after Sunday's loss in the divisional round. The Cowboys won 12 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1994-95. They felt ready to end at least an NFC Championship Game drought.
The Cowboys were facing a rookie quarterback in Brock Purdy, Mr. Irrelevant as the last pick of the 2022 draft, yet could not get it done Sunday.
There is no guarantee that 2023 will offer anything different than any other year since 1995 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XXX. The burden or shadow just gets larger.
"There's no doubt we'll be back in this position,” Prescott said. “It's just about winning. No doubt at all. What we've done as an organization and taken a step -- it all sucks right now, don't get me wrong -- [but] there's no doubt when you talk to the guys in the locker room, you talk to the men that have put in this time, the pillars of this team. We have to get some guys back. But there's no doubt we'll be back. That gives me confidence and gives everybody in that locker room confidence. I hope.”